Thursday, April 26, 2012

How We Learned About Ourselves and Each Other Through Acting Games

The title of this post sums up the plot of CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION, but it was smart of Annie Baker not to use it as the title of the play. The actual title makes the play sound far more deep and mysterious than the alternative.

But I was flabbergasted when I read the play the other day. As I blogged about on Tuesday, Mac Wellman opined that the critics don't really get the sharp edges of Baker's work. And Wellman disparaged what he thinks American critics love, which is "Sentimental Melodrama" aka "Face Value Theatre."

I was flabbergasted because Baker's play is basically a one-episode tricked-out soap opera, without a single sharp edge. I am not kidding. Through the structure of the acting-class we learn who is married, who is divorced, who is attracted to whom,  who cheated on whom, who was molested, who can't get over her ex-boyfriend, who has an ill family member, etc. etc. etc. You know - gossip. The kind of stuff that people who are not Mac Wellman just absolutely cannot get enough of.

I think it's a good play, but then I don't think the problem with American theatre is not enough edge and too much respect for boundaries. As I demonstrated Tuesday, American theatre companies are obsessed with surpassing, pushing, breaking and smashing boundaries. And far from not enough intellectual sharpness, there is in fact a denigration of emotions. I found it telling that in her intro to CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION Baker makes sure to tell you that the characters "are not fools." Why would she need to do that? Because it's the natural inclination of the contemporary theatre world to look down on a play that is about average people, interacting in the usual ways. Having more female than male roles doesn't help either.

Baker manages to avoid having her play dismissed thanks to the acting class scenario. It works for four reasons: it gives a dash of high culture to the proceedings; it's very meta - actors pretending to take an acting class and in some cases playing acting games for the first time; it freshens up standard play conventions like monologues - one of the acting games is to have a person pretend to be another person in the class and tell the audience about "themselves" - so there are several monologues throughout the play, but characters deliver each others' monologues. Finally, it works because it's funny to see these people being made to act in odd ways required of acting games.

But the reason it's a good play is because it is well-plotted. Baker ensures that as we gradually learn about the characters outside of class, we see how that impacts their interactions during class, and vice versa

Yes, it's very well done but it is in absolutely no way cutting edge or boundary-breaking. I read hundreds of plays a year through my various theatre activities and I promise you, there's nothing edgy about CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION. A CHORUS LINE, first produced in 1975 is far more edgy.

I don't know if Mac Wellman is talking about another play by Baker that has sharp edges, but I suspect he was just flattering her when he said the stupid critics missed the sharp edges of her work - I guess he didn't want her to think, after all the nice things she said about him in the Dramatists magazine interview, that he was lumping her in with purveyors of Sentimental Melodramas. But really, that's exactly what CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION is, and that's why it will be performed fifty years from now.